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Driver shortage forces Duluth Transit Authority to suspend routes, slow rollout of new network

The DTA is down 15 drivers, officials said, meaning the new higher-frequency network is being put on hold for now.

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A DTA bus travels toward downtown along Grand Avenue on July 7, 2021, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A reimagined bus network scheduled to begin this summer is now on hold, after public transit officials announced a shortage of bus operators Monday.

The shortage also means the suspension of a key route from western Duluth to the Miller Hill Mall area, as well as the Port Town Trolley serving the waterfront, the Duluth Transit Authority announced in a news release Monday.

“The instability of the workforce is something we’re juggling all the time and it’s tightened up on our end in the last week or so,” General Manager Rod Fournier said. “The drivers we have are doing a fantastic job filling all these gaps, but the heavy lifting gets to be too much at times.”

Fully staffed, the DTA relies on roughly 100-102 full-time equivalent drivers.

“We’re at least 15 short of that right now,” Fournier said.

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Duluth Transit Authority General Manager Rod Fournier at the DTA's garage
Duluth Transit Authority General Manager Rod Fournier poses in the DTA’s garage Feb. 15, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Training drivers is an intensive process, and doesn’t make for sudden turnarounds. The DTA is conducting a new training class later this month, hoping to bring seven new drivers on board.

The DTA had been planning to launch its higher-frequency service this summer. Anchored by two main lines criss-crossing the city every 15 or 20 minutes, depending on time of day, the service was the first reimagination of the bus network in its history.

“We are going to push back the launch,” Fournier said. “Given our challenges right now, we’re going to push back until we feel we’re fully staffed and we’re 100% ready to go.”

The DTA had been busy preparing for the new network — creating the new timetables, removing outdated bus stops, and enhancing others.

“At the end of day, it’s people that move this system,” said DTA spokesperson David Clark.

Open houses in Duluth and Superior will showcase the new routes and timetables for the Duluth Transit Authority's more frequent bus service.

Route 5, running from western Duluth to the Miller Hill Mall area, and the Port Town Trolley between downtown and Canal Park will be suspended beginning Sunday.

The Port Town Trolley is a free offering, and one that tends to be popular with tourists.

Pausing Route 5 impacts multiple other routes, which will also be paused, including:

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  • Inbound Route 10E trip departing Miller Hill Mall Door 8 at 7:05 a.m., and the outbound Route 1 zoo trip departing the Duluth Transportation Center at 7:35 a.m. weekdays.
  • Route 9MT trip departing the Piedmont Park and Ride at 7:07 a.m., which arrives downtown at 7:23 a.m.

"These individual trips, while not part of Route 5, are connected via interlined service, and will also be paused until the ‘5’ service returns," the DTA said.
The new network coming to the DTA was simplified, featuring 15 routes instead of the current 33, and came with a reduction in the number of bus stops in town, down between 350-400 to 1,000 stops. Cost neutral, the changes were designed to increase frequency of buses and provide better service to major destinations such as Superior, Lincoln Park, western Duluth, the mall, hospitals and universities.

The changes are scheduled to come without fare increases.

“Our No. 1 priority right now is recruiting drivers,” Fournier said. “We’re fighting for the same people as any transportation agency.”

Anyone interested in one of the current openings for bus operator and other positions at the DTA can visit duluthtransit.com and search for “careers” on the homepage.

Related Topics: DULUTHTRANSPORTATION
Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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